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Jain Community: Contribution to the UK

Volume 659: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2019

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of the Jain community to the UK.

I have the privilege of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Jainism, and of having a large Jain community in my constituency. Jainism is a major and ancient religion of Indian origin that is recognised in the UK and globally, including by the United Nations, yet the cultural, economic, social and religious contribution that Jains make to our country has received little or no attention from public policy makers. That needs to change.

The largest proportion of people of the Jain faith live in India. There are estimated to be some 7 million Jains worldwide, but global census figures are likely to be a significant underestimation because many Jains are identified as Hindu—of which more anon. There is also confusion about the true number of Jains in the UK, but the UK is certainly a significant centre for Jainism, and studies indicate that it has almost 65,000 Jains—a figure far in excess of the 20,000 identified in the 2011 census, about which I will also say a little more later.

One key figure in the UK’s Jain community told me:

“We have always sought to integrate into the fabric of British society and wholeheartedly accept British values whilst retaining our distinct identity, religion and heritage.”

The UK has five major Jain religious sites: Hayes, Kenton, Leicester, Manchester and, of course, Potters Bar. The Potters Bar Jain temple, the largest example of Jain architecture in Europe, hosted His Royal Highness Prince Charles as recently as 2015.

I have shared many an Ahimsa Day—a glorious occasion—with my hon. Friend. He will be aware that even many people who do not know much about Jainism know a lot about Jain temples, which are the oldest religious buildings on Earth. Is he aware of the problem with getting visas for stonemasons to come to this country to assist with repairs and extensions to our Jain temples? Will he join me in giving the Minister a gentle nudge towards being a little more generous with such visas?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and for his work on the all-party group. When I visited the Potters Bar temple last June, its trustees were at pains to point out the difficulty of getting visas for stonemasons to come and help with the extension. I hope to come back to that issue and, as my hon. Friend suggests, press the Minister for help with getting the Home Office to be a little more reasonable.

The Potters Bar temple is magnificent. It was built with ancient techniques and crafts. No steel was used; 1,300 tonnes of Indian marble from Makrana were shipped to London after being beautifully carved by more than 450 specialist craftsmen. Almost 6,000 carved pieces were used, including for the amazing intricate ceiling of Indian marble, which was assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle in just 15 months. That is why stonemasons need to be brought in from India, with the specialist expertise to which my hon. Friend rightly referred. I have also had the honour of visiting the Jain temple in Kenton, which is slightly nearer to my constituency and is attended by many Jains who live in Harrow West.

Jainism was founded in the 6th century BC. Jains trace their history through a succession of 24 Tirthamkara, or enlightened teachers.

The hon. Gentleman always brings topical and important subjects to this Chamber, and I am usually here to support him. Does he agree that the 65,000 Jains who live and work in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, are more than welcome, and that their religious view must be respected at every level by every person in all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important intervention about the need for respect for the Jain community. He is right that there are Jains in Northern Ireland too; I am sure that they will have appreciated his intervention.

The first Tirthamkara was Rsabhanatha, who lived millions of years ago; the 24th was Lord Mahavira, who lived in about 500 BC in what is now Bihar in modern India and was a contemporary of the Buddha.

There are three major principles that most Jains recognise. The first is ahimsa, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) mentioned; it enshrines non-violence to all life in thought, word or deed. The second is aparigraha, which requires Jains to minimise their environmental impact through the non-acquisition of material goods; it discourages them from employment in sectors such as mining that can have a negative impact on the environment. The third principle, anekanta-vada, promotes tolerance through the acceptance of a multi-sided view of reality; it encourages the recognition that others have a right to their own point of view.

The principles of Jainism are believed to have inspired the idea of non-violent protest. Mahatma Gandhi was certainly aware of them; he spoke of his debt to Jainism. The principle of non-violence has led Jain culture to be vegetarian, and indeed often vegan, with fasting observed by many at key points in the year. In April and October, followers of Jainism mark Ayambil Oli, a biannual weekly festival of prayer and limited diet that celebrates discipline, austerity and self-control. In August and September, the Jain community celebrates Paryusan, an eight-day festival of fasting, prayer, repentance and forgiveness. Lord Mahavira’s birth is celebrated in April, and his final liberation is celebrated during Diwali in October and November.

I pay tribute to the Institute of Jainology, which provides the infrastructure to support Jain communities throughout the UK.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate to raise awareness of the Jain community, not only among parliamentarians but among the general public. Does he agree that Jains do not practise Jainism for themselves alone? They bring their message of vegetarianism, tolerance and equality to wider society, promoting unity among all communities and, above all, bringing their architecture to Europe, particularly in the west London area. Their communities in this country make a very positive contribution.

My hon. Friend sums up well the contribution made by Jainism. I celebrate the contribution of all Jains, but particularly those in north-west London.

The Institute of Jainology was established in 1983 and has been registered as a charity since 1986. It supports the more than 30 individual Jain communities that operate throughout the UK and brings them together as one movement. It is led by the excellent Nemubhai Chandaria OBE, and I pay tribute to all its trustees, including Mahesh Gosrani and Jaysukh Mehta, whom I believe may be watching this debate. From 2007 to 2012, the IOJ oversaw the successful JAINpedia project, which catalogued, digitised and displayed, albeit briefly, the Jain collections in major UK institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Library, attracting more than 30,000 visitors. Indeed, the UK’s collection of Jain works of scholarship, arts and literature is the most important outside India. Overseen by Mehool Sanghrajka MBE, who continues on the board of the IOJ with his father, Dr Harshad Sanghrajka, the JAINpedia collection has already had 5 million website hits.

Broadly speaking, there are two major strands in Jainism. The Digambara sect, whose monks do not wear any clothes, is found mainly, but not exclusively, in southern India. The Shvetambara sect, whose monks wear white clothes, is found mainly in northern India. It is fair to say that most Jains in the UK adhere to the Shvetambara tradition. Each of the two sects is divided into sub-sects, largely on the basis of people who pray in temples—the Murtipujak, meaning “idol worshipper”—and those who do not idol worship, but use halls to celebrate their faith, who are known as the Sthanakavasi, which literally means “hall dweller”.

I have been honoured to chair the all-party parliamentary group on Jainism since its inception in 2016. With the purpose of gently raising the profile of Jainism in the UK, the APPG has had a number of successes. Last year the Jain community was finally given a place at the Cenotaph, alongside the other major world faiths and the royal family. Through the all-party parliamentary group, we have sought to celebrate the contribution of people from the Jain community who have dedicated their lives to community service in the UK, and of non-Jains who have personified the Jain principle of non-violence and compassion.

On the subject of community service, the Jains whom I know are exemplary in their contribution to the community. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat sad that we do not have a single Jain Member of Parliament? I appreciate that Jains might be doing a huge amount of work in the community, but does he agree that perhaps it is time for a Jain MP to bring some of those glorious principles, which he has so beautifully enunciated, to this place? Would we not be a better Parliament for having a Jain MP?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We would be a better and more representative Parliament if there were a Jain MP; equally, there are no peers in the other place who are from the Jain faith. He raises a point that I wish to address: the role of political parties in changing the situation.

Some Jains have received recognition for their work in the UK through the honours system. They include Dr Vinod Kapashi, who runs Kenton temple with the support of others, Mrs Vilas Dhanani and Mrs Kusum Shah. Jain businesses have made a huge contribution to the UK economy across every sector, with leading businesses in education, transport, finance, hospitality, real estate and pharmaceuticals, to name just a few, all run by members of the community. An important example is Sigma Pharmaceuticals, led by Bharat Shah. It is the largest independent pharmaceutical wholesaler in the UK and was a national champion in the European Business Awards back in 2017. It is a family-run company with Jain principles at its heart, and for almost 40 years it has served independent pharmacies, dispensing to doctors and hospitals across the UK.

Another Jain-led business is Comline, which was established in 1991 and is a leading independent British supplier of aftermarket replacement vehicle parts. It is headquartered in Luton and has rapidly expanded to ensure efficient logistics from four key European hubs, which are located not only in the UK, but in Greece, Spain and Ireland. It has an impressive record in international trade, which unsurprisingly led to its receiving, among many other prestigious business awards, a Queen’s award for enterprise in international trade in 2016.

The Jain community has made huge contributions to charity in recent years by donating to a variety of causes in the UK and across the world, including tackling poverty, environmental issues, animal welfare and disaster relief. The community has also made donations—if the House will forgive my being parochial—to Earlsmead Primary School in my constituency, to help an excellent headteacher invest in the school’s library and other facilities.

The Jain community has a number of asks of Government and Parliament, which I will set out, and I look to the Minister to help us make progress. As I have said, the 2011 census did not get close to recording accurately the number of Jains. They had to self-identify on the census and will have to do so again on the printed return for 2021, unless the Government change course. Some 20% are expected to fill out a paper census form, and how to identify their religion is likely to lead to confusion for many Jains who do not have access to a computer.

Although it is true that Jains who complete their 2021 census return online will be able to tick a “Jain” box when they get to the question on religion, the procedure is not as simple as one might hope. They will have to tick the “Other” box and then type the letter “J” to bring up a list of religions starting with “J”. I fear that the failure simply to offer a “Jain” box in the religion question on the main census form will once again lead to significant under-representation of the true number of Jains in our country.

In 2011, many Jains who did not note their specific religion ticked the “Hindu” box. They did so because many Jain families in the UK have links with India, which was known as Hindustan before the British came along. For many Jains, being a Hindu is a geographical description—they are very comfortable with it—of where their family are from. Confusion and misidentification of people’s religion was therefore inevitable in 2011, and we risk the same mistake happening again. In my opinion, the 2021 census could easily offer a “Jain” box in the religion question. After all, Jainism is a major world religion and the seventh largest in the UK. As I have outlined, there is already evidence of significant under-reporting. Why will the Government not grant that simple request?

Using data from Jain temples, we know there are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Jains in the UK, but just 20,000 or so identified as such in the previous census. The Office for National Statistics has been lobbied by the all-party parliamentary group and representatives of the Jain community, but it is refusing to budge. I look to Ministers to give a stronger steer to the ONS to put that omission right.

There has been little recognition of Jainism by public broadcasters. It is a significant world faith, with significant places of worship in the UK, yet the BBC and other broadcasters do little to acknowledge that fact. I hope the Minister is willing to help facilitate a meeting between representatives of the BBC and the Institute of Jainology, to help put that omission right.

With inaccurate data, public services such as NHS trusts have more of an excuse for not planning appropriately for their local community. The need for a Jain crematorium is particularly urgent. The traditional custom in Jainism is to cremate the body within 48 minutes of death; after that, the body starts decomposing and breeds bacteria. The belief is that a delayed cremation would cause a great deal of violence and potentially spread disease. There are no Jain crematoriums in the UK, which means there is usually a one-week period between death and cremation while arrangements are made.

The Oshwal Association in Potters Bar has submitted a pre-plan to its local authority for a purpose-built crematorium at the Potters Bar temple, with a hall to accommodate large groups, adequate ritual and washing facilities, prayer rooms, a viewing room and adequate onsite parking. It has not yet received approval.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North pointed out in his first intervention, a particular challenge for Jain organisations is getting stonemasons to build, repair or extend their temples. It would be useful if the Minister could encourage the Home Office to be more sympathetic to requests from Jain communities for stonemasons who are expert in the traditions and practices of Jainism, usually from India, to be allowed into the UK temporarily to help with temple works. I took up the Oshwal Association’s need to secure visas for five such stonemasons to help extend the Potters Bar temple in time for its 50th anniversary celebrations. Initially, all five visa requests were refused. Following appeal, three were allowed and two were not. Similarly, Jain religious leaders visiting the UK temporarily often have difficulties. Again, a little more sympathy from the Home Office would be helpful.

There is a challenge for political parties. As my hon. Friend has said, there are no Jain Members of Parliament. The most senior elected Jains are currently Navin Shah, the excellent London Labour Assembly Member for Brent and Harrow, and Councillor Sachin Shah, previously leader of Harrow Council. There should be Jains in both Houses of Parliament. I look forward to all our political parties doing better at recruiting and mentoring Jain politicians and ensuring that more are elected.

Jainism is a remarkable religion, and its adherents in the UK are great British citizens. They deserve more recognition, and I hope the Minister will help us to deliver that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing and introducing this debate on the contribution of the Jain community to the United Kingdom, and I welcome the contributions of other hon. Members.

I hope Jains across the country had a wonderful Mahavir Janma Kalyanak recently, as they came together to commemorate the birth of Lord Mahavir. I was pleased that the Prime Minister provided a message to the Jain community and sent her very best wishes as it came together to celebrate Mahavir Jayanti.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), to whom I have spoken about this subject. Although he could not be with us today, I know that he and the hon. Member for Harrow West are fully committed to serving not just the Jain community in Harrow, but all communities irrespective of belief and background. I commend them for their public duty in doing so.

I thank the members of the all-party parliamentary group on Jainism, ably led by the hon. Gentleman, for its work in helping to raise the profile of the Jain community in Parliament. In particular, I thank the Institute of Jainology and its chairman, Mr Nemubhai Chandaria OBE. Nemu and his team do a wonderful job representing the Jain community, including through their engagement with the Government, and especially my Department, to create and foster better understanding of Jainism.

We must of course pay tribute to the Jain community for its incredible contribution to British life, some of which we have heard about today. Jains from India and east Africa have successfully settled and integrated here, and they have made Britain their home. The Jain community comprises hard-working individuals and families, and is entrepreneurial in spirit. It is economically successful and continues to make a positive difference in our local communities. I know very well how faith groups and people from ethnic minorities can make our communities better, safer and stronger. Britain is stronger for her diversity. The Jains’ views of tolerance, respect and ahimsa help us to forge stronger and safer communities.

Lord Bourne, the Minister for Faith, recently attended the Mahavir Janma Kalyanak celebratory event last month in Portcullis House. He was honoured to have been asked to present community service awards to deserving members of the Jain community, including Dr Harshad Sanghrajka MBE, who received the ONEJain lifetime achievement award for his tireless work over 50 years supporting the Jain community; Mrs Shah for her charitable work in the UK and overseas; and Mrs Sheth for all that she has done over many years at the Navnat Vanik centre to manage the community catering as well as the weekly programmes for the elder members of the community. They have all gone above and beyond what is expected of them, all in the cause of helping their communities, voluntarily and without expectation or favour.

Charitable work and selfless service to the community are an important aspect of Jainism, whether in this country or anywhere else around the world. The Government are always delighted to receive nominations for honours from all faith communities to recognise their hard work. It was particularly satisfying to see the work of two Jains recognised in the most recent Queen’s new year’s honours list—Dr Vinod Kapashi, who received an OBE for services to Jainism, and Mr Ajay Gudka, who received an MBE for services to charity and to the community in Gujurat.

One topic I would particularly like to highlight is the work of the Jain community to promote organ donation and increase the number of donors across the Asian community. I applaud Jains and Hindus for bringing that important and often difficult subject to the fore. Their vital work will help to save countless lives.

On Jains’ engagement with Government, I am pleased to say my Department has an excellent relationship with the community and is happy to support it where we can. For example, my Department was instrumental in securing a place for a representative from the Jain community to attend the annual national memorial service at the Cenotaph for the first time last year. This was very fitting in view of its being the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. Lord Bourne and everyone in the Department were determined to see Britain’s diverse faith and belief groups appropriately represented, and it was a proud moment for us when that happened and Nemubhai took his rightful place.

One of Lord Bourne’s first engagements as the Minister for Faith was to visit the magnificent Oshwal temple in Potters Bar to see how the Jain community has fully embraced unity with nature. He was invited to tour the facilities and engage with the community.

I want to touch on the specific requests made by the hon. Member for Harrow West. He will know and, I hope, understand that the census falls under the purview of the Cabinet Office, so it is difficult for me to make policy on it. He has made representations on that point to the Cabinet Office and the ONS, and I know that the ONS has been engaging extensively with the Jain community ahead of the next census. It published its proposals in a White Paper at the end of last year. Some 55 different ethnic groups, including the Jain community, were asked to make representations, and I understand that the ONS has evaluated them according to some predetermined criteria. Currently, the recommendation, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, is that there will not be a specific category for Jains, but there will be the ability to use the online facility to search and enter oneself as a Jain. I appreciate that there is some concern about that. I ask the ONS and hon. Members to keep engaging with each other and the community to ensure that the records are good. It is no good undertaking that exercise if people are not aware that they can avail itself of that option and thereby enable us to collect the vital data that, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, is necessary to ensure the correct functioning of our services.

The second issue that the hon. Gentleman raised is the appropriate provision of crematoria. I am pleased to tell him that, just a few weeks ago, the Government announced that we will update the guidance on crematoria to ensure that the needs of different cultures and faiths in modern Britain are recognised and taken into account by local authorities. I will not go into all the details now, as the Government’s consultation response has been published and is online. The Minister for Faith has written to all local authorities asking them to be mindful of their obligations. The Government will consult on new guidance on the siting and design of crematoria, and will offer support to community groups interested in operating their own crematoria. I hope that is welcome, not just to the hon. Gentleman and the Jain community, but to different groups across the United Kingdom.

The two other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised are visas and the BBC. I would be delighted to see what we can do to get the meeting with the BBC that he asked for. Again, it is not the responsibility of my Department, but I would be happy to try to facilitate that meeting with representatives of this faith community. The hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) made the same point about temporary workers who do not fit neatly into any existing visa categories. If there are specific cases, my Department and I would be delighted to take note of them if they write to us. Typically, we raise visa applications with the Home Office.

I again thank the hon. Member for Harrow West for securing this debate. He is right to put the contribution of the Jain community on the agenda in this place. It should be incredibly proud of its record, and he should be proud of his work in supporting it in this place. The Government feel very strongly that we can support the community. Together, we can live in a cohesive society with a shared idea of what Britain means to all of us. We can come together to celebrate and embrace that, and ensure that this country remains stronger for our diversity.

Question put and agreed to.